Guilt gets a lot of air time here at London Psychological Services. So many of the amazing clients that I work with are constantly feeling guilty; guilty for saying no, guilty for not doing "enough", guilty for looking a certain way, guilty for working too much/not enough. Here are a few quick tips on how to cope with guilt.
When you lose control, take your foot off the brake and drive into the skid.
It’s a metaphor that I often use in sessions when talking about intense emotions. When you feel an intense emotion starting to bubble up, often the responses is to slam on the brakes. You may try to distract yourself from the feeling. You may shame, judge or criticize yourself for having the feeling. You may try to shove that feeling away into a box, lock it up tight and hope that you never have to feel it again.
You know that feeling that you're not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough, not “fill in the blank” enough. It is a terrible feeling. It fills you with shame. It makes you feel like you should be doing more (although you're not sure what you should be doing or when you should do it).
This feeling is fueled by unrealistic expectations. You have an idea of what you are supposed to be based on what you see in the movies and on tv, the magazines you read, the carefully edited Facebook profiles of your friends. These unrealistic expectations are well, unrealistic. No one is the ideal anything because we are human beings and part of our charm is that we kind of make things up as we go along.
This is okay.
There is no protocol on how to be the perfect mom, or the perfect wife, or the perfect career woman. Sure, there are some general guidelines (you probably need to actually show up to keep a job) but there is no mold that you need to squeeze yourself into. You are enough.
Seriously, you are enough.
This can be really hard to accept especially if you have been exposed to judgement and criticism (and seriously, who hasn't) and you have internalized those messages. The voice in your head never fails to tell you that you are not enough.
How to silence the “not enough” thoughts
Notice the thoughts. Thoughts are constantly running through your head that you may not be consciously aware of. You can't change what you're not aware of.
When you notice the “not enough” thought, weigh the evidence for or against that thought. Take the thought to court.
Is your evidence based on reality? Are you comparing yourself to an ideal that only exists in a photo shopped magazine spread?
Show yourself some compassion. You know that kindness you show to everyone else in your life? Do that with yourself.
Accept you for you. Yes, you can set goals for yourself and strive to make changes. That is not a bad thing. However, even without these changes, you are still pretty awesome. You are awesome enough.
Imagine what it would feel like once you shush the not good enough thoughts. Pretty amazing, huh? Know someone who also struggles with the not good enoughs? Feel free to share this post with them. Let's support each other in our enoughness.
I’m not sure when it happened, but we’ve all been duped. We have been told that being “strong” is something that we should be striving for. “She’s so strong” is the highest form of praise. Now if you mean “she’s so strong, she can squat 200 lbs”, then yes! Correct use of strong! If you mean, “she’s so strong because she never seems to be fazed, never seems to have an emotional reaction, doesn’t cry at funerals” then maybe we need to start re-evaluating what “strong” means. One of the most common phrases I hear in my therapy office is “I should be stronger.” When I dig into what it means to be “stronger” the overwhelming majority actually mean:
“I don’t want to feel a normal, understandable, uncomfortable human emotion to something stressful in my life.”
We have been conditioned to believe that having emotional responses is a bad thing, when actually emotional responses are highly adaptive. We are born with a full and complete set of emotions. We may differ in temperament (early on, you can often tell who the chill baby is versus the one that’s a bit more high strung), but the basic emotions are the same. These emotions are a gift. They allow us to connect with other people. They drive behavior that is protective (ex. Run into a bear, feel fear, run!). Emotions can be messages that things we are doing aren’t good or healthy for us. Emotions, even the most uncomfortable and intense, can be useful.
Somehow along the way though, we have been conditioned to view emotional responses as some sort of personality flaw. Actually, we view *negative* emotional responses as being weak. Be happy, be pleasant, say that you’re fine through clenched teeth, but never, ever admit to struggling.
This is crap.
This is not being strong.
This is emotional avoidance and it is not good.
When we try to avoid, ignore, deny or squish down our feelings, we are interfering with the emotional system. Just because we pretend that the feeling is not there, this does not mean it just disappears. They come out some way. Maybe you start feeling physical symptoms like headaches or stomach upset. You may start feeling anxious or on the verge of tears all the time, even if there is no clear trigger. You may keep it together most of the time, but occasionally explode at the smallest provocation (road rage, anyone?). You may have a hard time falling or staying asleep. Our emotional system is annoyingly brilliant; there is no way to trick it.
On the other hand, healthy emotional expression does not mean that we can throw a tantrum at the slightest disappointment. Emotional health requires a healthy dose of emotional regulation. We need to learn how to self-soothe when we are distressed. We do need to sometimes delay our emotional expression (delay, not avoid completely!). We don’t need to tell everyone our most inner struggles. We do need to allow ourselves to feel our feelings, stop the avoidance, the judgment, the criticism. Your feelings are there for a reason. Not sure what those reasons are anymore? That’s probably a sign that there’s been a bit of emotional interference going on and we’ve got some work to do to realign things. Let’s ditch the “strong” myth and start getting real about our feelings.
Guilt is my least favorite emotion. I know, I know, all feelings have purpose and meaning, but guilt is truly awful. It makes you agree to things that you really don’t want to do so that you can avoid feeling guilty. It can breed resentment. It can make you feel ashamed. It can make you angry. Basically guilt is one of those feelings where it’s hard to see the positive. However, guilt does have a purpose.
Guilt is the response to feeling that we have done something wrong. However, how do we determine whether something is truly wrong? There are some things that we can universally agree are wrong. If you kill someone, you should feel guilty. You have done something that is wrong. However, most of the time, things aren’t necessarily this black or white. Often, we feel guilty over things that actually aren’t wrong at all. Sometimes we have defined things as wrong for ourselves. Sometimes other people have defined something as wrong for us. We may hold on to these beliefs about right or wrong without even knowing that we believe them! So, how do we start chipping away at the guilt angst?
Step 1: When you start feeling guilty, do not act on it. Do not say yes to make the guilt go away. Do not try to push the guilt away. Do not fall into a pit of self-criticism. Just sit with the guilt.
Step 2: Figure out what triggered the guilt. Was it a direct request of you? Was it an implied expectation? Was it a passive-aggressive criticism? Was it your own thoughts?
Step 3: When you have identified the trigger, define why it feels wrong. Who has defined this as wrong? You may have unrealistic expectations of yourself and not living up to them creates guilt. Other people may have defined things as wrong, but it’s just a way for them to get their own needs met. This step can be really tricky and you may need some help with this one. Sometimes it can be hard to be objective about the expectations we place on ourselves and expectations that others place on us. This can often be a focus during therapy.
Step 4: Assess your own needs. Often we do things out of guilt because we want to meet the needs of others, but totally ignore our own in the process. Are your own needs and the expectations placed on you aligned?
Step 5: Identify other possible responses rather than just giving in to the guilt.
An illustration of our five step guilt plan:
You have just had a baby. Your baby is colicky and cries for hours on end. You are not sleeping, you are barely functional. You receive an e-mail from an older family member who really wants to see you and meet the baby. They think it would be a fabulous idea for you to trek out to their place, which happens to be two hours away. This person has a tendency to make remarks about family responsibilities and the importance of making an effort to stay connected with family. Your immediate internal response is “heck no!”.....and then the guilt sets in. What will they think if you say no? You’re off of work anyway, why can’t you go? What if they tell other family members that they haven’t met the baby and it’s all your fault? Why should you drive all the way out there? Because that’s what nice people do.....guilt, guilt, guilt.
Step 1: STOP. Hello guilt, my old friend. Nice of you to stop to by for a visit, let’s hang.
Step 2: Trigger – request from another person to do something that feels really, really hard.
Step 3: Is saying no to the request WRONG?
Is there something wrong in turning down an invitation?
Is it wrong to potentially disappoint another person?
Does saying no to the request make you a bad family member?
Step 4: You are exhausted, overwhelmed and need to do the bare minimum (other than keeping another human being alive). A long drive and visit is not manageable for you.
Step 5: Provide an alternate plan to your family member; “We would love to see you but driving that long is really not doable right now. You are more than welcome to visit us at home.”
Easy, right?!? Ha, not so much! I wish that guilt could be banished this easily but that would not be a realistic expectation. Our guilt is often tied to core beliefs that we have about ourselves, others and our relationships. These can’t simply be broken through in 5 easy steps. However, these steps may help you start developing an awareness of how you can start to change your relationship with guilt. If you think that this is an area that you would like further help with, please get in touch. I would love to help you turn down the ticket to your next guilt trip.
We are often hit over the head with the message that we need to “think positive!” or “look for the silver lining” or “there’s always someone who has it worse than you” when we are faced with a difficult situation. When bad things happen, the old adage "everything happens for a reason" is whipped out at least once to try to change how we feel about it. When we are struggling, we may downplay our own experience so that we don't make other people uncomfortable. We just don't want to feel bad. However, this can get us into emotional trouble. We all came into this world with a full and complete set of emotions, ranging from the most joyous to the depths of despair. We are meant to feel them all. Our feelings are responses, messages, information for us to use to make sense of our world.
Despite the usefulness of all emotions, we seem to have a tense relationship with the "negative" emotions. We may pile on judgement and criticism for feeling very reasonable and normal responses to stressful situations. We may be shamed by others for our feelings. Every day I work with people who are beating themselves up for having normal, human reactions to incredibly tough situations (one of my most commonly used phrases in therapy is “it would be weird if you were okay with that”).Let’s stop shaming ourselves for having normal feelings.
If you are struggling with infertility and desperately want a baby, it’s okay to feel sad.
If you are concerned about your job security, it’s okay to feel anxiety.
If your child is struggling in school, it’s okay to be worried about it.
If you can’t remember the last time you really connected with another person, it’s okay to feel lonely.
If you have lost a loved one, it’s okay to feel grief.
If someone has taken advantage of you, it’s okay to feel anger.
There is nothing inherently bad about these feelings. Yes, they feel uncomfortable. Yes, they may bring some painful truths into our awareness. Yes, we much rather feel the more warm and fuzzy feelings, but there is nothing inherently bad about “negative” emotions. Where things can start going off the rails is when we start piling on unrealistic expectations about feelings on ourselves.
“I need to be strong.”
“Why am I being such a baby?”
“This is not a big deal; I don’t need to freak out.”
We judge and criticize ourselves for normal reactions, which is the equivalent of dumping a canister of gasoline on a fire. Or we try to avoid the feelings, which is kind of like trying to shove one more thing into an already overflowing drawer. However, by interfering with the negative feelings, we also interfere with our ability to experience positive feelings. We can't just stop one part of the system, without impacting the entire emotional system. Feelings can get too overwhelming, too intense or we feel emotionally paralyzed or detached. This is usually the point when people end up in my office; they are confused, overwhelmed and tired of their own feelings.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, in order to make room for happiness and joy, we also need to make room for the negative feelings. We need to accept our own responses and reactions. However, this can be tough, especially if you have been struggling with your feelings for a long time. It can be hard to regain emotional balance. A large component of the therapy process is identifying feelings, understanding why those feelings are present, accepting the feelings for what they are and adjusting expectations about feelings. Your feelings don't need to be a battle.
No, really, how are you really doing today? If you’re like most people, you probably reflexively respond to this question without giving it much thought. You probably have a canned response such as “fine”, “great”, “busy, but good!” But when was the last time you thought about how you really are feeling? When was the last time that you talked about how you are feeling? There are lots of good reasons why we don’t go beyond the standard “fine” response when asked how we are doing. We may not feel like disclosing our worries to our neighbours, coworkers, families or others. We may not get the sense that the person doing the asking is really interested in our emotional state. It might just be easier, and it’s certainly quicker, to respond positively than to address real issues and concerns. However, taking a moment to think about your emotional well being, acknowledging and talking about how you really are feeling may be more important than it may seem. Receiving emotional support can prevent more minor stressors from becoming more severe. It can help us feel more connected to others. It can just feel good to be real.
So, how are you today?